Album review: Christina Aguilera’s ‘Bionic’ delivers what its title promises — and then some
How’s this for a pop-music revolution? A multiplatinum-level superstar returns to the scene with her first studio album in four years, and she’s got more on her agenda than shifting an easy million units. To be sure, Christina Aguilera has no intention of letting her star dim without a fight, and she opens and closes Bionic (her new album, due next week) with state-of-the-art boasting to remind us that once, many pop eons ago, she was second only to Britney Spears among hit-making divas. But she clearly isn’t willing to sell her soul in order to line her coffers with more gold and platinum. This is the least overtly mainstream music of her career so far, and even if the failure of the treading-water first single didn’t hint at her endangered commercial fortunes, chart success would not be a given.
Forget “Not Myself Tonight” — if you haven’t already. It was not a wise choice for the first single, and fortunately, it’s Bionic’s weakest moment. The electro numbers on the first half of the album emphasize sound over song, accentuating the cybernetic aspect of the definition of “bionic,” with synthetic beats and occasionally processed vocals, which is initially jarring since Aguilera is one singer who definitely doesn’t need any AutoTune assist.
The artificial clamor would have been disastrous if Aguilera and her parade of producers — oh, how I miss the good old days of one album, one producer — didn’t push the sonic boundaries of modern pop with such an appealing wall of sound. Tracks like “Glam” and “Prima Donna,” as well as the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink-explosive opening title track, “Elastic Love” (co-written by M.I.A.) and “Woohoo” (the second single, which should have been the first), may not have melodies or hooks that burrow themselves into your memory after one listen, but they are among the most interesting music Aguilera has recorded. There are 18 tracks in all — including three interludes — and one of the most remarkable things about Bionic is that for such a long album, it goes by as quickly as it does.
Lyrically, she’s not breaking new ground: “Desnudate” (that would be “get naked” in Spanish), is punctuated with cool electro horns and incongruously followed by “Glam,” a ’90s-style ode to catwalking that warns “don’t let the clothes wear you.” Yawn. But the best thing about the electro-pop numbers is that Aguilera doesn’t beg comparisons to Lady Gaga or Britney or even Madonna, but rather conjures aural memories of Berlin’s Terri Nunn and Missing Persons’ Dale Bozzio as well as S Club 7’s Rachel Stevens (don’t laugh — check out Stevens’ brilliant, overlooked 2005 album Come and Get It, and see what I mean). I’m not saying the songs are ’80s retro because they aren’t. The most impressive thing about the album’s first half is that it recalls ’80s new-wave queens while simultaneously sounding of the moment and futuristic. Who knows what Aguilera’s longtime fans will think? Who cares? Well, she probably does, but that’s clearly not her primary concern. Like Rihanna’s Rated R, Bionic works because Aguilera’s not going after the easy hit.
Vocally, she occasionally still comes across like a show off, huffing, puffing and thumping her chest, as if to say, “I may be little but I can blow.” But for surprisingly long stretches, Aguilera keeps the vocal pyrotechnics in check, emphasizing subtlety over bombast, and on the ballads (more on them later), allowing her vulnerability to show. Attacking the electro pop with oversinging would have defeated the purpose, as in this kind of music, the vocals are supposed to blend into the mix as another “instrument,” enhancing, complementing the music but not overpowering it.
“All I Need,” “I Am” and “You Lost Me,” a trio of stunning ballads well past the album’s midway point, stress the “human” in the super-human aspect of “bionic,” and benefit most from Aguilera’s lighter vocal approach. Unlike pop’s biggest recent female arrivals (Gaga, Ke$ha and Katy Perry), Aguilera can sell a traditional ballad, and she could have gone to Ryan Tedder and commissioned her own “Bleeding Love,” “Halo” or “Battlefield.” Instead she teamed up with frequent Zero 7 collaborator Sia Furler and produced her best down-tempo songs since “Beautiful.” “I Am,” in particular, is 3:55 of chamber pop that expands on the self-acceptance theme of “Beautiful.” It sounds unlike anything on the radio right now and should eventually be a single. Aguilera makes her boldest Bionic impression here, and she doesn’t once raise her voice.
These tracks are so gorgeous that it’s almost a disappointment when “I Hate Boys” raises the tempo again, and the three electro tracks that close the album are a bit of a letdown because one wishes Aguilera had spent more time exploring her vulnerable side. Fewer collaborators (maybe an entire Aguilera/Furler/Linda Perry affair) and a non ballad or two that push pop’s limits without sacrificing songcraft — think “Get Mine, Get Yours” from Stripped, or “Candyman” from Back to Basics — would have made Bionic closer to great than merely good. Still, it’s Aguilera’s best album, and even if morphing into the six million dollar woman has cost her some soul, she ultimately proves that she still has a strong, beating heart.